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Jonathan Bronitsky begins his review of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s ‘The Genius of Judaism’ with generous assessment of his public career to date:
This was almost inevitably the destiny of a person who is brilliant, who inherited a massive fortune, who has been involved in a number of high-profile dalliances and marriages, and who has spent forty years in the international spotlight as a philosopher, filmmaker, war correspondent, playwright, columnist and human-rights activist. Lévy claims on his résumé, among other achievements, more than thirty books—including works of philosophy, fiction and biography—countless articles and multiple lifetimes’ worth of harrowing foreign adventures. He’s been hailed in the pages of the world’s leading publications as “a star,” “a phenomenon,” “a commanding figure,” “a fearless intellectual risk-taker,” even “Superman.” Perhaps the greatest proof of his stature is that he’s widely known simply as “BHL.”
Given the above Perry Anderson has a very different appraisal of Bernard-Henri Lévy in the September 2, 2004 edition of The London Review of Books:
The world of ideas is in little better shape. Death has picked off virtually all the great names: Barthes (1980); Lacan (1981); Aron (1983); Foucault (1984); Braudel (1985); Debord (1994); Deleuze (1995); Lyotard (1998); Bourdieu (2002). Only Lévi-Strauss, at 95, and Derrida, at 74, survive. No French intellectual has gained a comparable international reputation since. Lack of that is not a necessary measure of worth. But while individual work of distinctive value continues to be produced, the general condition of intellectual life is suggested by the bizarre prominence of Bernard-Henri Lévy, far the best-known ‘thinker’ under 60 in the country. It would be difficult to imagine a more extraordinary reversal of national standards of taste and intelligence than the attention accorded this crass booby in France’s public sphere, despite innumerable demonstrations of his inability to get a fact or an idea straight. Could such a grotesque flourish in any other major Western culture today?
Thomas Sheehan reviews M. Lévy’s ‘Barbarism with a Human Face’ and ‘Le testament de Dieu’ along with Alain de Benoist’s ‘Les idées à l’endroit’ and ‘Vu de droite’ in the New York Review of Books of January 24, 1980. This adds not just philosophical insights, but necessary political context missing from the the linked review by W. Warren Wager. A short paraphrase by Mr. Sheehan, from the section dealing with Lévy’s ‘seven new commandments’ from ‘Le testament de Dieu’ is instructive as to the beginning of Lévy’s ‘religious evolution’ ?
The choice, then, is the same as it was for Tertullian in the third century: Athens or Jerusalem. Lévy’s response is “Forget Athens.” In place of its supposed humanism (which in fact is the root of totalitarianism insofar as it subsumes the individual under the general) Lévy proposes “seven new commandments.” 1. The Law (Lévy’s stand-in for God, but not to be confused with any specific laws) is outside time and more holy than History. 2. There is no eschatological future; rather, every moment is the right moment for manifesting the Good. 3. The future is none of your business: act now. 4. Undertake no act that cannot be universalized for all men. 5. Truth, one’s own truth, is extraneous to the political order. 6. Practice resistance, without a theory and without belonging to a revolutionary party. 7. In order to engage yourself you must first of all disengage yourself. If we ask Lévy what all this might entail for day-to-day politics, he comes down on the side of a “liberal-libertarian” state, which would govern best by governing least.
Next comes the assertion of M. Lévy of Judaism’s ‘universalism’ : Judaism is founded on the worship of Tribalism, and the key is the initiation rite of infant circumcision in the name of Yahweh. For all male members of the Tribe performed by a Moyle abiding by a Tradition.
Contrary to other religions, Lévy contends, Judaism’s “first commandment” is “the commandment of universalism,” “responsibility for the world,” the ethical directive to expose oneself “to the shadow of the outside world, the shadow of the Other, even the radically other,” a directive anyone, anywhere, anytime can promptly embrace. To be sure, this isn’t the thrust of Judaism; it’s the religion’s totality.
What follows is a protracted psychological analysis of the ‘a disillusioned radical soulfully seeking atonement.’ By way this :
The book is part of a very personal and protracted effort to construct and disseminate an outlook, a disposition, an anti-ideology capable of defeating the dogmas that deceived him during his youth. Lévy was educated at the elite École Normale Supérieure in Paris in the 1960s, “the bastion of the aristocracy of the revolutionary movement known as Maoism.” There in the French capital, in that topsy-turvy era, the leviathans of poststructuralism nourished his mind. Ginned up, he along with many of his classmates rallied behind the Khmer Rouge, the chic insurgency du jour, because the regime’s leaders had studied at the Sorbonne. Steeped in the theories of Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Georges Canguilhem, the Khmer Rouge (purportedly) uniquely possessed the innovative knowledge needed to finally extinguish the oppressive quality of language, erase fascism from culture and fashion “the new man.” It would triumph because it would elude all the pitfalls that had derailed all previous Marxist enterprises. “We were sure,” Lévy writes, “that we were at the apogee of the age in which God had died. It had been beautiful. It had been huge.”
What the reader gets from Mr. Bronitsky is concerted effort to ‘explain’ M. Bernard-Henri Lévy, yet by his own admission Lévy’s ‘religion’ is in fact nonexistent. It is in fact a political position.
PERHAPS THE most surreal moment is Lévy’s confession on page 208 of his 230-page work: “I can barely read Hebrew. I do not say daily prayers. I do not follow the dietary laws. I am, moreover, a lay Jew who seldom visits synagogues and has not devoted so much time or energy to study.”
M. Lévy’s Islamaphobia is made clear by Mr. Bronitsky here:
Excusez-moi? (This comes after Lévy, who I would hazard does not possess a mastery of classical Arabic either, has authoritatively pronounced that Islam is divided between “throat-slitters” and the “enlightened,” that Islam needs “a Muslim Talmud,” and that fanatical imams are “the exception,” not “the rule.”)
Mr. Bronitsky also makes clear that any critique of Israel/Zionism i.e. BDS is prima facae Anti-Semitism:
Alas, eclipsed earlier in the book are novel insights into Judaism’s myriad contributions to French culture and Western civilization, as well as incisive reflections on anti-Semitism, namely its evolution and one of its most arresting contemporary expressions: the demonization of Israel.
M. Lévy is a Brand Name, he modeled his initials BHL after Yves Saint Laurent’s YSL Brand. He is the perfect French Philosopher for the collapsing Neo-Liberal Age. Perry Anderson’s withering comments of 2004 will echo long after Mr. Mr. Bronitsky’s maladroit apologetic is forgotten!
But while individual work of distinctive value continues to be produced, the general condition of intellectual life is suggested by the bizarre prominence of Bernard-Henri Lévy, far the best-known ‘thinker’ under 60 in the country. It would be difficult to imagine a more extraordinary reversal of national standards of taste and intelligence than the attention accorded this crass booby in France’s public sphere, despite innumerable demonstrations of his inability to get a fact or an idea straight. Could such a grotesque flourish in any other major Western culture today?